Monday, 24 March 2014

Helping 'them'

You'll probably have seen this by now:

It's - I was astonished to discover - not a parody. It's real. Not a parody. A real image produced by the Conservatives to publicise the benefits of their recent budget to 'hardworking people'. As you can see from the poster, this amounts to reducing the cost of bingo and beer. 

Actually, I have no opinion about bingo tax, but scrapping the beer escalator is a good thing, as far as I can tell, as it reduces the financial strain on smaller breweries. It doesn't actually help any individual drinkers, though, as they've only taken a penny off the price of a pint. Even I don't drink that many pints. I estimate I'd be better off by about £12 a year if the brewers passed the penny saving on to my local and my local passed on this penny saving to me (just kidding - that's how much better off I'd be if I drank 100 pints a month, which I don't. Honest). 

Anyway, the shocking fact that the Tories have done something right amongst all the wrong things they've done is beside the point. This is a linguistics blog, not a beer blog. There is so much wrong with this poster that I can't address it all, but there are two things about it that I will mention: the phrase 'hardworking people' and the pronoun 'they'. 

'Hardworking people' is an unfortunately overused phrase among all the major parties. I have no idea what it means or who it refers to. I'm a hardworking person. Is it me? Maybe. Are the Conservative MPs themselves 'hardworking people'? I'm sure they'd like to think so, but the wording of this poster doesn't seem to say so (more on that shortly, when we come to 'they'). Unfortunately, beer and bingo are stereotypical pursuits of the working class, and I fear that this is what they mean this time by 'hardworking people'. In this sense, it's very much a euphemism, because 'working class' really means 'poor people' and there are rather a lot of people currently out of work and therefore not doing very much 'work' at all. Whether they're drinking beer and playing bingo, I don't know. 

So, 'they'. Owen Jones in the Guardian describes this as 'the fatal pronoun'
The fatal pronoun is "they": it looks like a conscious attempt by well-heeled Tories to distance themselves from the great unwashed, who are presumably all getting hammered in bingo halls. This is the real "plebgate".
They is a versatile little word. It's very useful as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she, handy when you don't know someone's gender or would rather not specify one of those two. In its 'usual' use, as here, it's the third person plural pronoun, in nominative case (ie the one used as the subject of the sentence). It refers to some group of people who include neither the speaker nor the hearer. And that, perhaps, is the problem here. Clearly, the Conservatives (the 'speaker' of this sentence) do not consider themselves to be among 'the hardworking people', but neither do they consider the reader (the 'hearer' of the sentence) to be 'hardworking people' either. So who are 'they'? The 'little people', those who well-meaning people would like to help but really aren't one of us at all. 

The alternatives are no good either, by the way: the first of these is better, but still feels patronising, and the second is just clearly nonsense. 
'To help hardworking people to do more of the things you enjoy.' 

'To help hardworking people to do more of the things we enjoy.' 

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